I think it’s safe to say at this point that digital publishers recognize the importance of email newsletters to their audience growth strategies. In 2016, Facebook pulled the rug out from underneath a media industry that had, until then, relied on it for hockey stick growth, and over the next several years publishers generally warmed to the idea that the decentralized distribution offered by email newsletters would prove more reliable than the fickle whims of social media giants.
Today, nearly every media company has a robust email marketing strategy, and some news startups interact with their readerships almost entirely within the inbox. We’ve also seen the launch of platforms that make it easier for individual writers to distribute their own newsletters and monetize them through paid subscriptions.
So are newsletters reaching a saturation point? Are they generating real ad revenue? And can newsletters actually replace Facebook as a referral source?
These are just some of the questions I put toward Ernie Smith, the creator and editor of Tedium, a fantastic newsletter that operates as a kind of Wikipedia of obscure topics. Smith also runs a popular Facebook group for the newsletter industry, and he’s one of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to newsletter trends.
To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.
Newsletters are the anti-Facebook
Publishers doubled down on newsletters soon after Facebook announced that it would show less news content in the Newsfeed. I asked Smith whether he thought email could serve as a viable replacement for Facebook in terms of its ability to promote a publisher’s content. Here’s what he said:
I think so. In many ways it’s much more stable than some of the social media alternatives, because you really control your email list. You’re the one in charge of managing when it goes out. It’s not like Gmail is going to randomly stop showing your newsletter one day, whereas Facebook’s algorithm has taken organic reach and just kinda thrown it down the toilet. So I think that, in large part, because of the changing nature of social media, people are turning back to the newsletter as something that’s a little bit more consistent and a little bit more organic and authentic.
The rise of free newsletter providers like Substack
Sending an email newsletter used to be an expensive and complicated affair. Robust platforms like Mailchimp cost a lot of money to operate and offered a lot more functionality than what your average writer needed if they were just looking to launch a personal newsletter.
Then platforms like Substack and Tinyletter came along. Free to use, they led to an explosion of independent newsletters launched by independent writers. Smith called this proliferation of platforms a “really good trend,” specifically because it allows independent writers with very few resources to monetize their content. They’re also much easier to use than enterprise email solutions. “When I started writing my newsletter, I was using MailChimp, and to put out my every issue, I would finish writing it and then spend like two hours trying to rebuild the whole thing in MailChimp, and I wanted to pull out my hair at the end of it. Mailchimp is so clearly built for marketing, not editorial.”
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Are newsletter ads a real thing?
When you hear about successful independent newsletters, they’re often supported by subscription revenue. Larger media operations like Axios and The Hustle monetize through newsletter ads, but I get the sense that it’s not a huge market at the moment.
Smith said that, because there aren’t many programmatic options for email, it’s difficult for the newsletter ad market to truly scale. “It’s not like the web ad market where it tends to be much more sophisticated,” he said. “ With my newsletter, I tend to carry advertising that has more of a hand crafted, native approach, and I think that a lot of newsletters, if they’re dipping into that well, it tends to be that sort of thing where, instead of carrying a banner ad, they’ll just mention the sponsor at the bottom of the email or at the top of the email.”
One of the reasons newsletters have been so successful is that they don’t have much competition in the inbox. When you send out a tweet or a Facebook post, it’s immediately competing with hundreds of other posts in a subscriber’s feed, whereas email inboxes tend to be far less crowded.
But now that publishers have gone all-in on email, will we see people cutting back on the number of newsletters they open? Smith doesn’t seem too worried about this possibility, arguing that instead we’ll start seeing general content fatigue across all mediums, not just email. “I think that what’s happening more in general is that, because there are so many creative outlets now, people are going to get flooded no matter what,” he said. “There are so many YouTube videos being made by independent creators, so many podcasts, so many newsletters. There’s so much stuff out there, and as a result, it’s a lot to take in. But I also think, from a financial standpoint, if you’re supporting like 20 people on Patreon and are subscribed to three Substack newsletters, that’s going to add up to a lot of money. So I think what’s going to end up happening is that, at some point, people are going to decide, ‘well this seems really interesting, but is it really worth $5, $10 a month for me?”
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